During Gareth Bale's presentation as a Real Madrid player at the Santiago Bernabeu earlier this week, the club's president, Florentino Pérez, insisted that supporters had much to thank the Welshman for. "I want to make something very clear," Perez said. "Bale's determination to play for Madrid was essential."
This sentiment was nothing new. Perez has said lots of times before that convincing the player is the key, three-quarters of the battle, the starting point from which you can start to pressure his club into selling. When Zinedine Zidane wrote "yes" on a napkin and passed it to him in 2000, Perez knew he would be able to sign him from Juventus (and did, in 2001).
From the other side of the negotiating table, Spurs were saying much the same thing. Their official statement noted that they did not want to sell Bale but that his resolve to leave was decisive. He had forced their hand; they had little choice. Coach Andre Villas-Boas added that "the pressure we were subjected to by the player was intense ... at the end of the day, it's up to a player to decide if he wants to stay or wants to go."
It is a familiar line. "A player always plays where he wants to play," as they say in Spain. "Players have too much power these days" is a lament heard often in England. It has become received wisdom, rarely challenged.
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But while the line is familiar, it is also false. This transfer window provided more evidence that those easy assumptions simply aren't true and that it is not so clear-cut. It also revealed that clubs can be, and are, every bit as underhand as players or agents -- ultimately, the tactics they employ can be remarkably similar. Yet rarely are clubs targeted for criticism in the way that players are. The transfer window becomes a battle of wills, a war. And what is it they say? The first casualty of war is the truth.
Players always play where they want, they say, but when the window closed Wayne Rooney was still at Manchester United and Luis Suarez remained at Liverpool. Both had agitated for a move, both had fought as hard as Bale had, but their clubs had outright refused to let them go. There were other players too -- some of them high-profile -- who asked to be allowed to leave but were told that they had to stay. And when that happens, it is simple: There is no way out. If the club refuses to sell, the player cannot leave. Ultimately, power resides in their hands, not his.
Suarez and Rooney were forced to stay and the decision of their clubs was largely celebrated. It was a moral victory. And for many, "moral" was the word. Suarez in particular should not be allowed to get away with publicly declaring that he wanted to go, they said. Liverpool's manager, Brendan Rodgers, was furious -- as a result, Suarez was made to train alone while Rodgers publicly insisted that the Uruguayan would have to apologise to his teammates.
A year ago, Athletic Club Bilbao forced Fernando Llorente to stay. From a business point of view, Athletic's stance was questionable -- they passed up on a transfer fee in return for keeping an unhappy player that the club and the fans had turned their backs on, not to mention one who rarely played -- but they wanted to make a point. It was a matter of principle. Again, it is a familiar line. Principle.
But what principle? That the will of the men who run the club is more important than the will of the men who play for it? Often the arguments do not make sense. In most working environments, those who want to work elsewhere can -- and there is something comic about journalists complaining about mercenary players from their columns in a different paper or site to the one they worked for last year. In football, it is rarely judged the same way.
Players are often accused of lacking loyalty towards their clubs, but how often do clubs show loyalty towards players? Players are criticised for not respecting contracts, but those who do, seeing out their deals and walking on a free, are then lambasted for not allowing their club to make money on their departure. Players are told they don't care and are mercenaries, then they are accused of not being professional. Yet in a warped kind of way, the "mercenary" is the ultimate professional.
Meanwhile, "professional" is often applied unevenly. A team wants to play in the Champions League, so they change players. That's fine. A player wants to play in the Champions League, so they change teams. That's not. Players don't care about their clubs, the badge or the fans, it is said, and usually that is true. When it comes to the public perception, a player cannot break his promise to a club but a club can break a promise to a player.
Up to a point, it is natural -- and right -- that it should be that way: It is the loyal identification with teams and supporters that make the game what it is. But who is the club? The abstract notion of a "club" comes up against an institutional reality: They are run by people every bit as flawed and every bit as selfish as they are. Players do not care about their clubs. And how many owners care? Are the Glazers really Manchester United fans? Did Tom Werner grow up watching Liverpool every week?
Clubs are run by people, people who use their status as the "club" to their advantage. The judge and jury are fans; they can be swayed, of course, but they go into the "courtroom" on the club's side. There is, naturally, a version of the story they are more inclined to believe. And clubs know that.
There is a lament that says no one ever thinks about the fans. In fact, they constantly think about the fans. A case is presented to them. Players move on but publicly it is always with a heavy heart, thanking fans whom they'll "never forget." Clubs are quick to insist that it is not their fault the player is leaving. Propaganda plays a part. PR, if you prefer. Stories are denied because they are false; they are also denied because they are inconvenient. Players, agents and journalists stand accused of lying; clubs, meanwhile, rarely do. But sometimes it is clubs who have the greatest interest in ensuring that a certain "line" comes out.
Spurs' statement was designed to make it Bale's fault that he had gone, not theirs. Liverpool denied that they had made Luis Suarez any promises, even if the existence of a clause, albeit one that was clearly ambiguously worded, was confirmed by the PFA chief Gordon Taylor. Manchester United distanced themselves from lawyers investigating the possibility of Ander Herrera departing Athletic; nothing to do with us. When Real Madrid sold Mesut Ozil to Arsenal, media close to the club (somewhat conveniently) noted that he lacked ambition, that he was a money-grabber, that he wasn't that good anyway and that his dad had been a problem.
During this transfer window, that reality has come more clearly into focus than ever before. Fans have questioned their clubs, and the men who run them, more than ever before. There is institutional criticism now and a legitimate debate over who/what the clubs are. Look at the response to Barcelona's handling of Eric Abidal, for instance, or their failure to sign a centre-back.
In turn, clubs have moved to limit the damage. They still have an advantage, though. For all the talk of player power, ultimately it is more often the clubs that hold the cards -- and those cards are clearly marked.